Rivals’ Pasts, and California’s, Shadow a Crowded Race for Governor
Posted June 2, 2018 12:53 p.m. EDT
LOS ANGELES — Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democratic candidate for governor of California, was working the hallways of Grand Central Market the other day, stopping people at every turn and food counter to ask for votes in Tuesday’s primary. That included Bruce Binkow, 61, a boxing promoter, over his lunch at Prawn Coastal.
Binkow smiled at the pitch from Villaraigosa, a former mayor of Los Angeles. But as he moved on, Binkow said his thoughts were less on the race and more on what he described as California’s prosperity under the man who has served 16 years as governor over the past 40 years — Jerry Brown, the Democrat stepping off the stage because of term limits.
“He was an excellent governor,” Binkow said as Villaraigosa posed for selfies a few feet away. “California seems to be healthier, more welcoming, more prosperous. I’m very, very happy with him. Those are big shoes to fill.”
A head-spinning field of 27 candidates is competing to fill those shoes. They are facing a stature gap as they are measured, inevitably, against the man they would like to replace. And the leading contenders to win on Tuesday are particularly burdened by political and personal baggage that offer another contrast with Brown as he prepares to retire to his ranch.
Two of the Democrats — Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor — were involved in high-profile affairs while they were in public office in the mid-2000s, episodes that have been raised against them during a candidate debate and in a handful of advertisements at a time of heightened awareness of sexual misconduct.
“People don’t bring it up in the context of the #MeToo movement — they bring it up as something they remember as part of my record,” Villaraigosa said in an interview. “Just like I think they bring it up for Gavin for the same reason.”
The top Republican candidate, John Cox, has been lifted by an endorsement from President Donald Trump, as the state’s diminishing population of Republicans appears to be rallying around him. Cox is now in a strong position to end up as a leader in the primary; the top two finishers will advance to the November general election, regardless of party, under California’s nonpartisan election system.
But Trump’s support could ultimately be toxic in a state where the president is unpopular. Newsom has already run advertisements tying Cox to Trump — most likely helping Cox with conservative voters in the primary while signaling how he would go after him in the fall.
And Cox, a Chicago business executive, is a recent arrival to California who has not been elected to major political office. That lack of government service could be a burden at a time when voters tell pollsters that experience is a key factor in choosing Brown’s successor.
“The reality is that Brown’s approval rating has been over 50 percent for quite a while,” said Mark Baldassare, the president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “Things are going very well in the state. It’s been a long time since people worried about the state budget, and he has managed his relationships with the Legislature quite well.”
The next governor of California will almost certainly be elevated overnight into a national figure. And the election is taking place as California enters potentially difficult waters: This transition of power, with an old guard stepping aside, is playing out as the state is engaged in an escalating battle with Trump and Washington, and as Brown and other leading state officials warn that California is overdue for a recession.
But so far, no candidate seems to have excited an electorate that does not appear to be particularly hungry for change. “No one is paying attention,” Newsom said. “I’ve seen two cameras at six events today.”
“There is a sense of satisfaction,” he said in an interview. “People aren’t looking for anything radically different.”
But Joe Sanberg, an investor and liberal activist based in Los Angeles, said the Democrats had failed to inspire voters or present a compelling economic agenda.
“The proof that no one’s presented a transformational economic message is the fact that a third of voters are still undecided about who to vote for, for governor,” Sanberg said.
Newsom, who has led the field in almost every poll this year, served two terms as mayor of San Francisco before becoming lieutenant governor in 2011; he grew wealthy with the creation of a small wine and hospitality business empire financed by Gordon P. Getty, the investor. As mayor, he defied the federal government in backing the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Villaraigosa served as speaker of the State Assembly and as mayor of Los Angeles. Another Democrat who polls suggest has an outside chance of advancing to the November election, John Chiang, is the state treasurer.
By contrast, Brown, 80, served as governor in two different eras, attorney general, mayor of Oakland and secretary of state. He grew up in the home of his legendary father, Pat Brown, who served two terms as governor before losing to Ronald Reagan in 1966.
“Jerry Brown will be a hard act to follow, because of his gravitas, his expertise, his clear priorities and his negotiating skill,” said Miriam Pawel, an author who has just written a history of California told through Brown’s family. “One may agree or disagree with his priorities, but he has proved to be an astute politician who effectively corralled competing factions to close deals.”
Indeed, to a considerable extent, Villaraigosa and Newsom have tried to attach themselves to parts of the legacy of Brown, who has not endorsed anyone in this contest. But they have been critical as well, particularly on the rise of poverty and the homelessness crisis that unfolded under Brown.
For Newsom and Villaraigosa, the challenge of inspiring voters goes beyond being judged against Brown and trying to turn out an electorate that seems, overall, happy with the direction California is going. They also have the hurdle of troubled impressions and memories that linger from earlier chapters in their careers — particularly when many relationships between women and powerful men, even consensual ones, are being revisited. As mayor, Newsom cut a glamorous figure across San Francisco. In 2004, Harper’s Bazaar called him and his wife at the time, Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, “the new Kennedys,” photographing the couple in expensive designer clothes at the home of Getty and his wife, Ann. Newsom’s marriage to Guilfoyle ended in 2006; the mayor remained politically popular.
“He rocketed up,” Phil Matier, a political columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle who covered Newsom. “I’m not sure he had his helmet on when he did it.”
Newsom was frequently seen at events with celebrities and gained a reputation as a partyer. Around the same time in 2006, city gossip and political columns said he was dating Brittanie Mountz, who was around 19 at the time; he was roughly 20 years her senior. (Newsom, in an interview this week, denied they were dating. “She was a friend,” he said. “I won’t go into details. Dating is not a term I would use. But friendship, yes.” Mountz declined to comment).
Newsom’s personal life drew attention again in February 2007, after he acknowledged he had had an affair with his campaign manager’s wife, Ruby Rippey-Tourk.
The affair had occurred in 2005, when Newsom was in the middle of divorcing Guilfoyle and when Rippey-Tourk was working as his appointments secretary. Alex Tourk, Newsom’s campaign manager and friend, resigned. Newsom, 39 at the time, apologized swiftly and said he would seek treatment for alcohol abuse.
Newsom was re-elected easily in the fall of 2007. “The voters either overlooked it or, while it was important, not important enough,” said Tom Ammiano, a former member of the San Francisco board of supervisors.
In an email to The New York Times, Rippey-Tourk, now Rippey Gibney, called the affair “a very unpleasant mistake” but said she did not feel Newsom did anything untoward. “I take responsibility for my decision — I made a bad choice — not a coerced one,” she wrote.
Newsom said he heard about the issue only from the news media and from political opponents, but that it was “fair game” for voters to consider.
“It’s par for the course,” he said. “It’s exactly what I expected. Voters have a right to consider everything. The people of San Francisco considered that — and they probably know me better than anybody.”
Villaraigosa, as mayor in 2007, acknowledged an affair with a television anchor, Mirthala Salinas, that took place as he was separating from his wife, Corina.
The affair was covered relentlessly in the news media and cast a shadow over Villaraigosa’s time as mayor. He became a prominent spokesman for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and briefly emerged as a serious contender for transportation secretary, along with Anthony Foxx, then the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, according to several people familiar with White House deliberations at the time.
But Villaraigosa was photographed around this time at a party in Mexico with actor Charlie Sheen, stirring concerns in the White House that his lack of personal discipline could embarrass the administration. He remained in Los Angeles.
Villaraigosa said in an interview this week that he expected voters to take his marital difficulties into account, but argued they were outweighed by the rest of his record: a drop in crime, his program to expand mass transit. He said he did not think the affair hurt him politically. “I don’t think people see the connection,” he said. “Because in my case, it wasn’t somebody working for me and it wasn’t a 19-year-old. It was a woman who I had a consensual relationship with.”
Voters seem divided as to whether personal behavior should matter. “It makes me queasy,” said Jane Davis, 59, a community volunteer from Redlands, in San Bernardino County. “I don’t think that’s honorable behavior.”
But Ronald Hattis, 75, a physician from Redlands, described Newsom’s behavior as “human.”
“I know there are people who that sort of thing bothers them,” he said. “But if you’re only looking for people who have abstained from doing anything, who are not alpha leaders, you’re going to miss a lot of talent.”
At the end of the day, the biggest obstacle for these candidates when it comes to exciting voters may not be their past but the sitting governor in Sacramento.
“Hanging over this election is ‘What happens after Jerry?'” said Rick Jacobs, a senior political adviser to Eric M. Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles. “I’m not sure most voters have focused very far beyond that, which presents challenges for all of the candidates.”